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Listen to Music? Not on this Urth.:

In Martin Scorsese’s terrific documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, it’s clear that for a sustained period of time a lot of people were taking pop music very seriously. Dylan himself, in interviews, suggests that his material was over-received and interpreted as some kind of gospel or moral road map through the social upheaval of the 1960s.

Regardless of how you come down on any of that, we might agree on one thing: Today, it seems we aren’t listening to music so much as wearing it. And just like with fashion, we dress up in a variety of ways.

It may not hold up as a reference on your term paper, but you can learn a lot about this by walking down Main Street in Santa Monica. Between the various retail environments and the passing automobiles, you will encounter at least a half dozen different utilizations of music. Main Street, in its way, is alive with music but again… I’m not sure anyone is actually listening.

I initially became curious about this when we drove past the Urth Caffe. (That’s Urth, and café has two f’s. Blessedly, coffee is not spelled with a k.) In the evening, the recorded music washing over the outdoor tables was clear enough (I’m not saying loud…) that I could hear it in our passing car, two lanes of traffic away from the building. Maybe the wind was blowing a certain direction, but there’s no question the owners of Urth (not to be confused with Halliburton, the owners of earth) believe they must create some kind of environment with music.

I returned a few days later at lunch and the tunes were cranked lower. Now the music was ambient, blending into the noise of the place. This way you ended up with a mix: Conversation hubbub, food service clatter, and “muzak-level music merged to become what we might call “City Cafeteria” if we were marketing the CD. That’s fine, except as a musician I always hate it when music is so low it’s just a flavoring; a kind of sonic mayonnaise.

Compare that to Peet’s Coffee where, on Saturday mornings anyhow, they play classical music. Purists might argue that when used this way, the classics are reduced to audio comfort food. Well, okay, I did eat a brownie. But you do hear the melodies and if you are listening to the point of identifying the composer, you can.

At the lamp store nearby, I first detected no music. Then I heard it: A low repeating techno riff that might have also been some type of Italian coffee brewing device in the back room. At the MOCA store, it sounded like public radio was playing. However, museum gift shops are required by law to play public radio.

And then because life itself should always be full of contrasts, or be a cabaret… a guy drove by in one of those lumpy four wheel drive cars that wants to look like a Volkswagen on steroids but not an SUV. Music blasted out of his open windows, for all of us to enjoy.

In all these situations, I don’t believe anybody was really listening to the music. I think it was being used as a kind of envelope or cloak, or maybe as warm water in which we wrap ourselves and insulate against any anxiety about being out of our homes. At Starbucks, you can buy the music being played and then play it in your home. Seamless continuity; warm water everywhere. The guy in the car? He has other problems.

Bob Dylan may have been hoping fans would dial down their almost reverential bonding with his tunes when he switched to electric rock. But when “Like A Rolling Stone” floats out of the speaker at a gas station pump, you wonder if our relationship to music has gotten a little too casual. “Music: It’s not just for listening anymore.”

This Week’s “Know Your News” Quiz

1) Harold Pinter won the Nobel

Prize and

(a) has been outspoken on the Iraq


(b) drives Motor Trend’s Car of the


(c) will replace Alex Trebek on


2) Carl Rove made a fourth


(a) on “Blind Date.”

(b) before a federal grand jury.

(c) at a Quiznos grand opening.

3) A cost-of-living increase in

Social Security

(a) won’t cover consumer price


(b) may spike wine cooler sales.

(c) means “Hel-lo, Sizzler!”

Answer Key

1) (a) “Betrayal” plays backward.

2) (b) Betrayal moves forward.3) (a) Betrayal means hard times.

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